Hope in the Winter Garden
Baptist minister the Revd Richard LIttledale seeks out the heart of the Winter Garden, and finds it to be a ‘thin’ place, where hope and faith may be found in the short, cold days and the dormant soil. Hope in the Winter Garden. Producer: Andrew Earis
This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors. It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.
Music: Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 - Vaughan Williams
The New Queen's Hall Orchestra
CD: Vaughan Williams Orchestral Works (Decca)
Poem: 'my Garden' by Thomas Edward Brown (1830 -1897)
Good morning, and welcome to Sunday Worship with me, Richard Littledale. Winter is here, and the garden lies dormant, hunkered down under decaying leaves, as if snuggled under a blanket and hoping for better things. Few plants dare show their faces, and those which do must run the gauntlet of the cold, and brave the icy touch of frost. Winter can be a harsh and unforgiving time – with shorter days, longer nights and serious challenges for many. Those challenges are likely to be greater this year than ever. And yet, it has always been the role of the church of Jesus Christ to raise her voice amidst the chaos, to light her candle in the darkness.
Dear God, in the darkness of this season, we look for your light. In the cold, we look for the warmth of your near presence. Oh God, who turns the clock of the seasons in your hand, be near to us in every season of the soul, we pray. Just as you were there in the ebullience of the Spring, the sunshine of the Summer, and the golden glow of Autumn, may you be here now in our Winter too. May we worship you with heart and soul and mind and strength this day. Amen
Music: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Poston
CD: A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection Volume II (Coro)
Reflection - the garden as sacred space
The garden as a place to encounter the Creator has, quite literally, the oldest pedigree in the book. The Bible’s whole story begins with God creating a garden of exquisite diversity and intricate detail, which he then entrusts to the first members of the human race. Every plant and tree and animal was set within it in a state of ecological harmony and perfection. This was a world without corruption, pollution, exploitation or disharmony of any sort. In effect, it was the perfect garden – reflecting the glory of its creator and blessing the lives of its occupants. To imagine how that might have been takes an enormous stretch of our imaginations today. However, it would not remain that way. As the story unfurls, so the dream unravels. Listen, as God declares the end of an era in Genesis chapter 3:
Bible reading: Genesis 3:17
With that, the garden falls into disrepair, its occupants are banished and every attempt at horticulture thereafter is conducted like a kind of guerrilla warfare – pushing back the tide of weeds which constantly laps at the gardener’s feet and seeking to bring flower and fruit from an often-unwilling earth. All gardening, in this sense, is gardening in adversity. Each garden, from an artful Palladian landscape, to a tiny window box in a high-rise flat, is an echo of that garden which we have never seen.
"Every time we take a patch of earth, no matter how large or small, and seek to make it produce the plants which we have chosen, this is an act of rebellion against the consequences of the Fall. Every thorn from pruning a rose and every resurgence of ground elder after you think you have dug out the root is a reminder that cultivation is a battle. Against the odds, we strive to make a patch of God’s earth better than it was before, and to impose our mark upon it."
I come as a recent ‘convert’ to all of this. In all honesty, I had dismissed gardening as someone else’s affair for most of my adult life. In my early years of bereavement after losing my wife to cancer, though, it was a different story. With the emotional landscape of my life torn asunder, here was a little bit of landscape which I could tend and nurture. Within its small confines, I could bring beauty where there had been neglect, and fruitfulness where there had been none before. To my enormous surprise, I found that tending the garden tended the gardener too. As the first green shoots pushed up through the soil, there were shoots of hope within my own life too. This was a kind of ecotherapy – soothing body, mind and soul. There was something more, though, this was Eco theology too - ingraining my beliefs about God in the very whorls of my fingertips as I worked the soil and saw his creative wonders at close quarters. As a minister for over thirty years, I have preached on many occasions about stewardship, creation, and our partnership with God. My work in the garden was starting to make me feel all these things as I had never done before.
Music: Beautiful Things
CD: Gungor Beautiful Things (Brash Music)
When nursing a broken acer tree back to health last year, I found that the impact on me was at least as great as it was on the tree itself:
"I am sure my attention does nothing to help the plant – but it does a lot to help me. Gardening has affected the plot of land surrounding my house, of course. However, the impact on the person tending it has been greater still. I have always enjoyed God’s creation and have been known to preach sermons on it, especially at harvest time. Now, though, it is personal. The ‘big theology’ of creation and redemption has been writ small in my little potted tree. An arc of theology, which stretches far too wide and high above my head for me to focus upon, comes into sharp relief within the confines of this little pot."
For many people, the garden has proved to be a thin place, where God the creator feels very near. It acts as something of a mirror. In it we see both Him as author of creation, and ourselves as stewards of that creation – reflected in all the tangled growth and wonder of the well-tended garden. This is all the more so when we tend it in the context of adversity, and become more of our true selves by doing so:
"If we talk about this as a struggle, then it is well known that the harshest adversity brings out depths of strength and ingenuity of which the human race can be proud. In short, it does us good. This is one of the reasons that horticulture has been so much a part of the penal system in the past two centuries. Those whose lives have gone wrong for whatever reason can make something go right in the earth at their fingertips. For those who feel that life has done things to them, this is an opportunity to be the actor in their own story – to make something good happen in the space around them of which they can be rightly proud. Not only that, but the kind of nurture which most plants require is relatively simple – and yet they quietly yield the benefits of fruit and flower, texture and fragrance, to those who will tend them."
Little wonder that gardening can now be socially prescribed, and that there are neighbourhoods around the world where community gardens have become a powerful source of community cohesion. Some would argue that we can be the best version of ourselves in these green spaces.
Music: All things bright and beautiful - John Rutter
CD: John Rutter - The Ultimate Collection (Universal Classics)
Reading: Genesis 8 v. 15 – 22
Reflection - God in the Winter Garden‘
Seedtime and harvest’, God is to be seen. If it is true that God may be seen in the garden, is that so year round? It is maybe easy to imagine his presence in the Spring, when the irrepressible force of life breaks the surface of the soil with each new shoot. In the Summer, we may surely see his hand at work through that curious alchemy where brown roots and green shoots become a gorgeous rainbow of every colour and shape imaginable. In Winter, as the leaves begin to turn, and trees which were beautiful when clad in green become more magnificent still in their crimsons and golds, it can be hard to suppress the voice of instinctive praise. What about the Winter, though, with its short days, its darkness, and all the growth hidden beneath fallen leaves and frost? At this point, enter the Hellebore, or Christmas Rose When I planted my first one, in the shade of a lilac tree – I spent many months wondering why I had bothered. All through the Spring, Summer and early Autumn it skulked there, scarcely doing a thing. It neither grew nor flowered. Com ethe cold days of Winter, though, it was a different story. No sooner had the first frosts come than it defied the odds and flowered like a beacon in the Winter gloom. Consider, too, the cyclamen, buried out of sight year round, showing their very ordinary foliage at most - but now adorning the dark earth with splashes of red, pink and white. These are floral harbingers of a hope ever renewed.
Music: In this place - Will Todd
CD: Will Todd - Lux et veritas (Signum)
I quote here from ‘Tales from an under-gardener’, the story of my surprising journey into gardening. In this passage I talk about some cyclamen rhizomes which I had dug up from beneath a gravel driveway, where they had lain dormant for year after year. I was very sceptical that they would ever survive:
“When autumn and then winter came, I was to find myself wonderfully proven wrong. As the days got shorter and darker and most of the other plants died back, a little revolution was happening at the foot of my lilac tree. Red, pink and white splashes of colour were emerging from the soil where I had planted those ugly, misshapen rhizomes. My cyclamen were coming good. All through the darkest days of winter, with dead leaves round about and frost laced across their petals, these plucky little plants kept up a wonderful display.”
The Valley of Achor is a place in the pages of the Old Testament with a chequered history. In the story of Joshua, it is the place where a battle was lost, a traitor named Achan was discovered , and a terrible judgement visited upon him. The story ends with these sad words:
Reading: Joshua 7:26
Many many years later, hope dawns for that dreadful place. Looking ahead to the time of promise, Hosea the prophet utters these words in Hosea chapter two: ‘I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.’
To many, the garden is a door of hope, opening onto the possibility of growth and life in the midst of everything. The numbers who see it that way have increased dramatically during these pandemic times, with over 40% of the adult population identifying it as their favourite pastime. When the world at large was off limits, and our horizons restricted to the home, many found that the space on their doorstep had more to offer than they had ever imagined. People started to dabble with gardening, whether there outside space was half an acre of untended wilderness, or a small window-box on their balcony. Maybe the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ has become a nation of gardeners. Many are inordinately skilled, and gifted with the proverbial ‘green fingers’. Others, like me, are enthusiastic amateurs -keen to learn through both success and failure. I have found the gardening community to be a very kind one, always willing to give help and advice to one like me who does not really know what he is doing.
It is tempting to think that gardening ceases in the Winter, since there is little that we can do to tend the plants. Many are sleeping beneath the soil as they wait for warmer days, and those which are not don’t really require our help. For me, Winter is the time when I am reminded more than ever that I am not, in fact, the gardener. I am not the one who put the tree inside the apple nor the rose inside the bud. It is during this season , when my intervention is kept to the minimum, that I am most inclined to admire the deeper work of God the creator. He has set the alarm clock inside these growing things – telling them when to sleep and when to rise. In this season, more than any other, I must step back and admire his greater work. These words were written in the depths of last year’s pandemic Winter:
“There is a heavy frost, dusting the dark purple leaves of the heuchera with white icing. The ridges chewed up in the lawn by the canine racetrack are mini-mountain ridges now – sharp underfoot and capped with white peaks. The last of the summer’s begonias are blackened by this harsh onset of winter and bound for the compost heap. As I walk round the garden, though, I spot a quiet revolution. The Virginia creeper, so magnificent in the summer, is now just a skeleton of twigs and branches. On closer inspection, though, every branch, at every junction, has a tight red bud, no bigger than a pinprick, beginning to swell. My little rescued acer with its powdery grey bark is still defying the odds, and there are hints of buds there too. In my woodland garden, the remains of my astilbes are a reminder of the summer’s ill-advised planting, and even the reliable tiarella seem to have shrunk from the cold. Behind them, though, are bright green shoots of the bulbs coming through. Their tiny shoots of lime green look almost as if they were illuminated under the deep shade of the trees. I did not plant them, but they do not need me anyway. There is something blissful about the unknowing of the garden today.”
Somebody asked me recently why I write about an ‘under- gardener’. Traditionally, an under-gardener was very low in the pecking order of a household staff. My answer is that God is the real gardener. He is the one who truly makes things grow and flourish in their seasons. All I get to do is nurture and help.
It is Winter, times are harsh, and the garden is sleeping – but God has always laboured when others sleep, and does so even now.
Music: Open thou mine eyes - John Rutter
CD: The Very Best of John Rutter (Decca)
Reading: Isaiah 55 v. 8 – 13
Music: Great is thy faithfulness
Robbins Island Music Group
CD: Solo piano hymns (Robbins Island Music Group)
Prayers and Lord's prayer
Dear God, we give you thanks on this day for the beauty of the garden. We thank you for the inordinate intricacy and complexity of the plant kingdom – with all the shapes, colours, scents and textures which it provides. For those gardens which bring us pleasure, whether our own or other people’s, we give you thanks.
We pray on this day for those who bring fruit and crop from the earth in the face of great adversity. We pray especially for those whose crops will struggle this year because of extremes of temperature, water and wind. Give courage, fortitude and insight to them, we pray.
We remember, too, those whose time and expertise is devoted to preserving our plant species for generations to come. As they engage in this hidden work, meticulous and thorough – we pray for them.
Help us, we pray, to tend our gardens in such a way as to help the planet, and not to harm it. Make our gardens not only mirrors in which to see your face, but havens for the wildlife which shares this fragile planet with us.
Today, we think of those whose Winter will be a cold and hungry one. Forgive us that even today there will be people on the edge who must choose between keeping warm and eating. Lend your strength and inspiration to all who come to their aid, we pray.
Give us, this day, the eyes to see splashes of colour and signs of hope, even in the Winter Garden, we pray.
Music: Great is thy faithfulness
CD: Ageless hymns - Songs of hope (Lynda Randle Ministries)
Together with all God’s people, we pray.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen
Walking home on the coldest of Winter nights, Thomas Hardy is surprised by the melody of a thrush’s voice – piercing the dark and cold:
Music: Sing gently - Eric Whitacre
CD: Eric Whitacre and Virtual Choir 6 (Unquiet)
Reading: The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy
Perhaps we, too, shall find a hope of which we were unaware in the Winter Garden.
BlessingGrant, this day, that faith might grow like the garden plants – quietly, strongly, and reaching for your light. Amen
- Sun 21 Nov 2021 08:10